A Rare Survival
“Miles of flint and good oak fencing, an estate saw mill, a deer park, a lake, then a well-conditioned red-brick model Victorian village with a Georgian House (probably for the agent), a stone rectory by P C Hardwick in mid-Victorian Tudor, a school, a big walled garden with acres of glass, a well-kept drive swirling past exotic firs and rhododendrons to a spired church, and finally an enormous stone house...” was the description of Englefield by John Betjeman and John Piper in their 1949 edition of Murray’s Berkshire Architectural Guide. It had, they went onto say, “…the overwhelming and firmly established atmosphere of the great country house of Trollope’s novels, which continued into good King Edward’s reign.". Leslie North writing in the Reading Chronicle of August 1980 described his approach to the village: “…I felt – if not exactly unreal – as if stepping into something retreated from an unacceptable present.”.
Englefield was, Betjeman said, “the last of its kind in the county and worth seeing as a compact, well-run example of benevolent private ownership...”. If it was a rare survival by the middle of the 20th century, how much rarer is it 70 years later: still an intact and functioning estate village with its school, its church and its shop all well patronised and the great house still lived in by the squire, although sadly visitors and residents alike often find themselves in the middle of a film set and the park, although still home to the large herd of deer and the many waterfowl on the lake, is more often used for exclusive private entertainments than for the village and charity fetes that were once held there. It is true that the post office service was withdrawn from the village in 2008, the church, school and shop with its tea room all draw a large proportion of their support from outside the village, the big walled garden is now a garden centre and the Workmen's Club has recently closed and awaits a future use. It is true, too, that the traffic in the village street generated by all these attractions is somewhat disconcerting to those who remember the village in earlier times but still it is a mere fraction of what it would have been had Englefield remained at the end of the 19th century as it had started it: on a junction of two busy through routes.
Englefield has its origin as a Saxon (or earlier) hamlet and has survived by being continually, but sensitively, renewed. Most of what is seen today goes no further back than the 19th century with just one or two bits from the 18th or perhaps earlier. Englefield House and the church, although of Elizabethan and Norman origin respectively, are not much more than 160 years old in their present appearance. Some additions have been made in the 20th and 21st centuries but Betjeman, who in his chapter on the county in The English Counties Illustrated was appalled by “...the council houses which mutilate almost every village...[that] are generally considered to be amongst the most ill-sited, disproportioned, inharmonious and badly built houses in England [and] provide a glaring contrast with their surroundings”, would, one feels, find no reason to change what he wrote about Englefield in Murray's Guide.
All of this was principally the creation of two successive owners who divided the 19th century almost exactly between themselves and oversaw the building of most of what is there today and, in the nick of time, the creation of new roads to take away the through traffic and allow that "retreat from an unacceptable present". Their creation has been well served by further generations of the same (somewhat loosely connected) family and remains what Betjeman said it was, a rare survival indeed and something completely unknown and even less understood by almost all except those fortunate enough to experience it at first hand.
© 2021 Richard J Smith